A Rooftop Bonsai Garden in the Windy City

A friend has fought the wind on his top story house in Chicago for years. At a distance I’ve cheered him on.

This summer he built a new structure to protect his trees. I thought it worth sharing, as so many have wind issues. In this post he shares the construction of this structure and his thought behind it.

Having a bonsai garden on the roof in a city presents an abundance of environmental challenges, but can also be a rewarding endeavor. The garden contrasts but compliments the architecture of the skyline. It somehow softens the steel and glass structures that are ever evolving and continually changing.

Wind velocity and strong gusts in excess of 50 MPH are the worst of the elements that I face. Each year I learn a bit more about the micro-environment of my roof deck. Of course each year I also loose several containers to the wind, and often ruin years growth on deciduous trees due to that same wind.

Some of the precautions that I take in my windy environment:

  • My benches are built lower than typical for more stability, and I set my benches at 22”
  • They are simple in construction, rough-sawn cedar 2x material and 4 x 4 cedar legs
  • Each tree is tied down to the benches
  • The west facing section of the garden has a 6.5 foot fence with horizontal cedar spaced 1/2” apart
  • I add 40% shade cloth to the exterior of the fencing to add a bit more wind displacement

Watering can be tricky, too, as the sun’s intensity is stronger than being on the ground. On windy days I ofter water the leaves multiple times to keep them from desiccating. It is a balancing act to say the least, not overwatering the soil but keeping the foliage hydrated. I am getting better at managing my watering practice each year.

As does everyone who has a bonsai garden I move the trees around a bit, placing top-heavy ones on the ground prior to a weather event and shuffling season to season for more shade or sun sensitivity. It’s those unexpected storms that really cause grief.

All of this being done, Mother Nature still has a way of acting up. You can usually find me in my underpants on the roof in the middle of a massive thunder / wind storm trying to hold entire benches from blowing over. There are usually a few expletives involved, too…

This year I was fortunate to be able to expand my space. The new space presents challenges. Wind direction is one of the things I am studying.

I am looking forward to the space weathering and becoming less of a freshly built environment.

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My handy friend says there “used to be a restaurant in Chicago called Noyane—which translates as ‘hidden roof’ in Japanese.” He wants to name his bonsai garden that. It’s a lovely garden where we need them most. Bravo!

7 Comments

  1. Stephen Liesen says:

    What a cool story. Some of the photos are remarkable. Seeing the photo of the thriving azalea makes me jealous that he can grow it in that environment when I have not succeeded in growing them at my place.

  2. Daniel Gates says:

    Very inspiring and glad the elements/lack of ground hasn’t lead to give up. Keep up the good word and the name for the bonsai garden is spot on. WELL DONE!

  3. araxih says:

    Having a name for your bonsai garden is good concept. I recently changed the position of my benches facing east and west (the width side) to north and south. I also changed the setup from individual 8 x 4 benches to a long 40 x 4. I saw a significant difference. When wind blew from east to west and at times from west to east, the trees were less deterred. Watering them became less complicated going from bench to bench. If I were to gave a name it would be Araxi Longbench bonsai.

  4. David M. Schleser says:

    how does he care for trees in winter?

    • Matt Berenberg says:

      Hi there, I enclose a portion of the deck to create a cold frame that houses all of the trees. It is heated and has fans for air circulation. Built with a panelized system that I can “easily” be removed in order to create more air flow if needed and / or assist with temperature regulation. The film I use is 5mil. Opal color, I double it up for the panels and the top has 4 layers to trap air.

  5. Robert Gardner says:

    Thanks for your garden. I also have some problems with the weather here in Seattle. Not so much with sun light but with the rain and snow. Great job 👏

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